Subramanian Swamy, top Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and member of India’s parliament, is at it again.
In a recent interview to VICE Media, the BJP MP alleged, “We know where the Muslim population is large there is always trouble — because the Islamic ideology says so.”
The right wing politician, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, was speaking in the backdrop of India’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act — a law that the UN calls “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”.
Swami’s views are not shared by a majority of India’s Hindus, but there is an underlying fear that this brazen animus for Muslims, expressed so publicly and so often nowadays, has gone mainstream now
That matter is currently in the country’s Supreme Court, where the constitutional validity of the law will be decided in the months ahead.
India, a vast country of the size of a continent, has a diverse religious mix. More than 200 million Muslims call the country home. While there have been religious tensions in the past, people of all faiths have peacefully coexisted over the decades.
Societal tensions have particularly exacerbated in India since the rise of the Hindu right wing BJP. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an Islamophobic environment had gradually taken root in the country, largely owing to fears around the new Citizenship Act.
It is not surprising therefore that Swamy, a serial provocateur, would add to the toxic anti-minority discourse at this critical time.
When reminded that Article 14 of the Indian constitution ensures equal rights for everyone, the BJP leader quipped that it was a misinterpretation of the Article, adding: “The law ensures equal rights for equals.”
The baffled journalist, Isobel Yeung, pressed on, asking Swamy if Muslims were not equal In India. “No, not all people are equal, Muslims do not fall into the equal category,” an unflappable Swamy shot back.
That is an astonishing statement to make. The fact that a leading member of India’s ruling party expresses such opinion about the country’s minority at a time of heightened religious and social anxiety, speaks volumes about the prevailing mood in the country.
In February 2020, riots in Delhi — the worst communal violence in India’s capital in decades — resulted in widespread bloodshed, property destruction, and rioting that left more than 50 people dead, two-thirds of them Muslims.
Pertinently Swami’s views are not shared by a majority of India’s Hindus, but there is an underlying fear that this brazen animus for Muslims, expressed so publicly and so often nowadays, has gone mainstream now.
The problem is that such populist talk by important leaders often signalises to the hordes of internet trolls and foot soldiers of such ideology that their anti-minority behaviour is legit.
There is fear that the dog-whistling may lead to further strain on the country’s social fabric. Since late March when India first started reporting cases of COVID-19, tweets with hashtags like #CoronaJihad started doing rounds in the country’s online ecosystem.
While cases of coronavirus have been reported in several parts of India, the presence of COVID-19 cases in a Muslim seminary in Delhi apparently became a flash point, prompting both the country’s right wing media and its right wing troll army to go all out to target Muslims.
Since India’s independence from the British in 1947, the country’s minorities have mostly felt safe. Their place in society has been guaranteed by India’s famously secular constitution that guarantees equal rights to all people.
Equal protection to all
Article 14 of the constitution of India in particular guarantees equality before law and equal protection to all persons. In unequivocal terms it states, “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”
Interestingly equality before law means the state is bound to treat every class of persons without discrimination. The equal protection of law also means the government will not frame laws that discriminate between people.
When Swamy and his ilk make statements against Muslims, they conveniently forget that the rights enjoyed by people under Article 14 are absolute. What is more, these fundamental rights are not exclusive to the citizens of India but to “any person” who resides in the country.
India’s prime minister, who swore oath of office with the promise to bear true faith and allegiance to the constitution of India, that he will do right to all manner of people in accordance with the constitution and the law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will, must act on his oath.
As the country’s minorities are berated at the time of a global crisis, he must ensure that his party leaders — from Anant Kumar Hegde to Anurag Thakur and others on the minority-bashing spectrum — put an end to it.
As a voluble leader, whose writ reigns supreme in the BJP, Modi must speak out firmly and let down flaps on people like Subramanian Swamy, who was previously shown the door by Harvard University and shunned by none other than Modi’s ‘father figure’ Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
That, and not radio silence, will send a reassuring message to the minorities of India.